The 22nd International Conference for Women in Business (ICWB) will be held in Tokyo in July against an ever more challenging, yet dynamic and vibrant backdrop.

2016 was a milestone year in two ways in terms of the social conditions surrounding women in the workforce. First, the year marked the 30th anniversary since the equal employment opportunity law came into force. Additionally, 2016 saw a new law to enhance the employment and promotion of women took effect under the initiative of the administration led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

In a bid to increase possibilities for women, the new law set specific numerical targets, which was a step forward for Japan, a country that ranked 101st out of 145 countries in the 2015 Global Gender Gap Index by the World Economic Forum.

However, the reality was not that easy to change. One year later, Japan fell to 111th place out of 144 countries in the index.

Kaori Sasaki, the president and CEO of ewoman, Inc. and the organizer of the ICWB, saw this result as a chance.

“I was discouraged for three seconds,” she said. “But then it came to me that it could be a great chance for policymakers and business leaders to realize they have not done enough.”

It has only been a year since the government and the Japan Business Federation moved toward promoting women’s empowerment, making it a popular topic in the media. “We should use this harsh result as a driving force,” she said.

Amid this dynamism in the society, the 22nd ICWB sets its theme of the year as “Act Positive.” Sasaki hopes that participants take a step forward from last year’s theme of “Think Big,” and actually make moves in positive directions inspired by the talks and discussions at the conference.

The 10-hour conference, of which The Japan Times is one of the sponsors, starts with opening remarks by Sasaki, followed by a speech by Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike.

The rest of the morning session consists of lectures and discussions by leaders, not all of them women, of diverse fields and nationalities. Calbee, Inc. Chairman and CEO Akira Matsumoto, MetLife Japan Director, Representative Statutory Executive Officer, Chairman, President and CEO Sachin N. Shah, and Hankyu Hanshin Department Stores, Inc. President and Representative Director Naoya Araki will have a discussion moderated by NHK World newscaster Minori Takao under the tentative theme of “In What Ways Should the Awareness of Men Change?”

Sasaki said that the percentage of male participants was 12 percent last year. She hopes that more men join this year, stressing that this long-running conference with around 800 to 1,000 participants from at home and abroad is not just about women; it is about diversity.

Through the open and lively discussions on the common theme of the promotion of women’s roles in business, participants — whether men or women — can share ideas about how people of our time can best achieve, manage, appreciate and learn from diversity.

In addition to gender, the conference is diverse in terms of nationality and topics. Kathy Matsui, vice chair of Goldman Sachs Japan Co., Makiko Eda, the president of Intel K.K., and Shannon Kalayanamitr, the co-founder and Group CMO of Orami will have a tentatively titled discussion, “Asia Is Changing” led by author Kyoko Altman.

All the speeches and discussions will be simultaneously interpreted into English or Japanese depending on the language used in the session. Four out of 10 round-table discussions that will be held in the afternoon will be in English only.

“I encourage people from various cultures and backgrounds to participate in the event,” Sasaki said. Last year, there were participants from 25 countries.

“When I say ‘diversity,’ I mean ‘diversity of perspectives,’ which allows us to think further and deeper, and act positively to improve corporate management or make changes in politics,” Sasaki said.

Diverse perspectives of a great variety of people, of all genders and different nationalities and occupations make similarities and differences stand out, which is an indispensable step to come up with ideas to improve society, not just for a particular group of people, but as a whole, and put them into action.

After the seated course lunch prepared by the Grand Nikko Tokyo Daiba, the afternoon session starts with the dialogue between Shinjiro Koizumi, member of the House of Representatives and the director of the Agriculture and Forestry Division of the Liberal Democratic Party, and Sasaki on the tentative theme of “Japan’s Future.”

The next dialogue, tentatively titled “Life Is Live” will be a unique interchange between former marathoner Yuko Arimori and neuroscientist Kenichiro Mogi.

Sasaki often uses the term, “stretching your brain,” and stresses the importance of opening up to different, sometimes even unimaginable ideas. “Diversity arises in yourself when your brain stretches to accept what you have never thought of whether you like it or not,” she said.

The rest of the afternoon session is a series of roundtables where participants can join interactive discussions with the speakers. The first set of roundtables offer five different themes for each participant to choose from.

Two of those are held only in English, with the President of the National Council for Women in Egypt Maya Morsy and Asia Pacific Regional Director of U.N. Women Miwa Kato discussing women in politics and public leadership. Additionally, Altman will moderate a discussion between Executive Vice President and CEO at the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency of the World Bank Group Keiko Honda, Matsui and Kalayanamitr on women in investment.

There will also be two roundtables in English in the second set. Naoshi Takatsu, managing partner representing Northeast Asia at IMD business school, Kumi Fujisawa, co-founder of Think Tank SophiaBank, and Patricia Jaquet, the director of Admissions and Marketing for College du Leman Sarl will hold a discussion under the theme “Education For Future Leaders” moderated by Etsuko Okajima, president and CEO of ProNova Inc. and professor at the Graduate School of Management of Globis University.

Under the theme “Entrepreneur makes a difference,” Executive Director of Diversity & Inclusion Services, Ernst & Young Advisory Co., Japan, Janelle Sasaki will lead the discussion of the two speakers, Kalayanamitr and Rubana Huq, managing director of Mohammadi Group and other participants.

Other roundtables held in Japanese will cover topics such as work style reform, women on board, how to train your voice, women in journalism, new personnel evaluation systems for growing businesses and what it takes to work in a managerial position.

“Every year, 70 percent of the participants come to the conference alone and 60 to 70 percent of those are newcomers,” Sasaki said. “I try to imagine their path to the conference: what they are expecting when they make a reservation, how it feels to get on the train alone both excited and nervous, if they feel overwhelmed when arriving at the venue and seeing the vast number of people, what kind of speech should come first to uplift and inspire them and so on,” she added.

Sasaki spends her whole year thinking about who should be the speakers for the next conference. “It does not matter if the person is a big name or not. The reasons for the choices I make could be the attractiveness of the voice, speaking skills and the personality of the person, uniqueness of the theme and content, or my instinct that something interesting may happen if this person and that person meet up and collaborate,” she said.

She is very careful and insightful about the order of the speeches and discussions. She takes into account when to change the atmosphere, when to maybe shock the participants a little to help them open up, making them feel welcomed and relaxed to help them speak out.

These efforts directly lead to the satisfaction of not only the participants, but also the speakers. “They don’t leave even after they finish their part, enjoying the 10-hour conference fully with everyone else,” Sasaki said.

The conference ends with a buffet party that provides a lively networking opportunity. Registration is available from the website of the 22nd ICWB for ¥59,000 to ¥80,000 depending on the registration date.

The 22nd International Conference for Women in Business will be held at the Grand Nikko Tokyo Daiba, in Minato Ward, Tokyo, from 10:00 a.m. to 8 p.m. on July 23. For more information and registration, visit www.women.co.jp/conf/index-e.html .

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